"Star Trek" Lives

On a February weekend in 1974, when I was 11 years old, I went to the happiest wake I've ever attended. It was called the International Star Trek Convention. Held in a bunch of overcrowded ballrooms in New York City's Americana Hotel, where anxious fire marshals kept interrupting the festivities to clear the aisles, it was a charming, amateurish, collegial celebration—one of the earliest in what became a torrent of Trek conventions over the next few years. I went with my older brother and my dad, and what had brought us and 10,000 others together at five bucks a head was the beautiful corpse of a great TV show that had been off the air for nearly five years. We went to screenings of favorite episodes, watched a parade of people dressed up as "Trek" characters and sat rapt at reminiscences delivered by some of the show's cast, including a surprise visit from Mr. Spock himself, Leonard Nimoy. (William Shatner, a.k.a. Captain Kirk, hadn't yet acquiesced to participate in the convention-scene carny, though he soon would.) You could get away with smoking in hotels back then, and I remember an area called the "dealers' room"—a space where sellers trafficked in comic books, Super-8 home movies, sci-fi books and magazines, and oodles of "Trek" memorabilia—reeking of tobacco. (Story continued below...)

But it was the company, not the second-hand smoke, that made me lightheaded. I was surrounded, for the first time, by like-minded "Trekkies." (Later that term took on a pejorative ring, and fans coined "Trekkers" instead. Potay-to, potah-to.) We were largely a band of pasty-faced mouth breathers, many wearing thick, black-framed glasses and sporting long, stringy hair. Still, I don't remember feeling a trace of shame. I'd found my people. We spoke the same language. We loved the ritualistic invocation of our favorite catchphrases—"Beam me up," "Warp factor 10," "Set phasers on stun," and Dr. McCoy's perpetual declaration, "He's dead, Jim"—though the clear favorite, uttered by chief engineer Scott, was, "I canna change the laws of physics, Cap'n." We knew the product better than the people who'd made it. More important, we'd begun to push what had been marginal movie-genre ephemera—science fiction, fantasy, costumed-superhero stories—into the mainstream. I couldn't see it then, but we were pioneers in a techno-nerd meritocracy that people like Bill Gates would come to embody. We were witnessing the gestation of a new brand of fan culture, and on our way to a paradigm that would redefine geek as chic.

"Star Trek" debuted on NBC in September 1966, and nothing quite like it had been seen before. Created by Gene Roddenberry, who'd flown B-17 bombers in WWII and worked as a pilot and a cop before becoming a TV writer, the show took the old trope of a multiethnic military unit and spliced it into the most optimistic science-fiction scenario imaginable. It was upbeat, not dystopian or cautionary—180 degrees from paranoid scenarios about nuclear Armageddon and cosmic doom, which percolated through the '50s and came to a high boil in the early '60s. "Star Trek" posited that by the 23rd century, mankind would put aside warfare. The human race would band together to form an interstellar "Federation," exploring planets on humanitarian missions in giant conveyances called starships. The crews would essentially be the Peace Corps, except they would visit worlds instead of countries and they'd carry futuristic guns called phasers. (Conveniently, "Trek" allowed viewers to continue indulging a fear of "the other" in the form of warmongering aliens like the bearded, swarthy, nastily imperialistic Klingons, obvious stand-ins for the Soviets.)

From the start, "Star Trek" generated disappointing ratings, and NBC seemed to view people who loved the show as almost an annoyance. A letter campaign, begun in late 1966 and partly orchestrated by Roddenberry, helped win the series a second season. Was NBC happy about that? Didn't sound like it. On March 9, 1967, a live announcer came on at the close of an episode to make an unprecedented statement: " 'Star Trek' will be back in the fall. And please don't write any more letters." A second outcry—involving phone calls to network brass, at least 100,000 letters (some accounts say more than a million), a student protest at NBC in Burbank, and 5,000 MR. SPOCK FOR PRESIDENT bumper stickers, some surreptitiously stuck on NBC employees' cars—saved the show again late in season two. Such a large-scale plea for a stay of execution had never occurred in TV. But ratings kept sliding, and "Star Trek" finally limped off the air in 1969 after just 79 episodes. Then something unprecedented happened. In the early '70s, "Trek" reruns landed for bargain prices in syndication, mainly on UHF stations—remember those?—and the ratings took off. A new cult audience joined people who'd tuned in for the network run. They started meeting at conventions and discovered others who shared their passion. There wasn't any Internet yet, but the rudiments of the modern fan-boy network—a less fractious, more benevolent version of it—had materialized.

OK, cadets, so much for history. Now let's beam ourselves forward four decades—through five subsequent "Trek" TV series, past 10 theatrical movies (moving at higher warp speeds past the odd-numbered titles, which fans maintain aren't as good as the evens), beyond all the Trekkie jokes—and here we are, at the latest fan-boy fixation. Next week the 11th movie in the franchise, called plain old "Star Trek," lands in theaters. The film is directed by J. J. Abrams, who owes his cool factor primarily to being a cocreator of "Alias" and "Lost" (as opposed to directing "Mission: Impossible III"). Paramount commissioned him to take "Trek" back to ground zero with an origin story detailing how the first Enterprise crew—Kirk, Spock, ship's doctor McCoy, linguist Uhura, Ensign Chekov, navigator Sulu and engineer Scotty—all meet each other.

That may be a tonic for moviegoers beaten down by a surfeit of grim fantasy visions over the past decade, including the dour "Matrix" films, the discontents of Spielberg's "A.I. Artificial Intelligence," "Minority Report" and "War of the Worlds," Alfonso Cuarón's relentless "Children of Men" and even the "Harry Potter" films, which dwell much more on the rise of evil than the eventual triumph of good. Of course, "Star Trek" is also a reboot, a shakeup of sacred "Trek" canon that changes lots of details even as it respects many ground rules. There's always the chance that could go down badly with Trekkies, able to Twitter instantly about anything they don't like all through opening weekend. To smooth over the continuity hiccups, Abrams's screenwriters, Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci, have devised a black-hole–triggered time-travel scenario that explains away all the differences between the "Trek" universe we've come to know and this one, which is literally an alternate reality. Fans may be debating the logic all summer. But chat-board worrywarts should ultimately be very happy with Abrams's decision to lure veteran Nimoy into the center of this rewritten-history plot, in a substantial role as "Spock Prime." Don't ask us any more details, or we'll have to nerve-pinch you.

It's the Spock plot strands that give the new "Trek" its best shot at once again commanding the zeitgeist. Spock's cool, analytical nature feels more fascinating and topical than ever now that we've put a sort of Vulcan in the White House. All through the election campaign, columnists compared President Obama's unflappably logical demeanor and prominent ears with Mr. Spock's. But as Spock's complicated racial backstory is spun out in detail in the new "Trek"—right back into childhood—the Obama parallels keep deepening. Like Obama, Spock is the product of a mixed marriage (actually, an interstellar mixed marriage), and he suffers blunt manifestations of prejudice as a result. As played by Zachary Quinto, the young Spock loves his human mother, but longs to assimilate completely into his Vulcan father Sarek's ways, eschewing messy emotions the way all Vulcans do. Young Spock is constantly being told by Vulcans and humans alike that he's either seething with inappropriate emotions—indeed, he takes Kirk by the throat at one point—or that he's not emotional enough and shouldn't be so repressed. Obama may or may not be a fan—the White House says he isn't, but Trekkies have claimed him as one of their breed ever since he said, "I grew up on 'Star Trek'—I believe in the final frontier," at a campaign stop last year. If he does check out the new movie, I can imagine he might feel a special empathy for Spock's position, given the chattering class's insistence that he needs to show more emotion, too.

There's one more intriguing allegorical overtone to the new "Trek," perhaps completely accidental. With the willfully hegemonic Bush administration now gone, the tenets of Roddenberry's fictional universe feel very much in step with current events. Whether you're happy about it or not, the Obama foreign policy, at least for now, emphasizes cross-cultural exchange and eschews imperialistic swagger. That sounds very much in sync with the Federation's Prime Directive, which stipulates that humanity should observe but never interfere with alien cultures (no Iraq-style invasions, in other words).

All this metaphoric resonance may or may not strike a chord with a mass audience. Teenage ticket-buyers may not give a darn about egghead-talk overtones. Old-school Trekkies, some of whom say online that they're insulted by Paramount's recent "This is not your father's 'Star Trek' " promo campaign—a blatant attempt to attract younger viewers and avowed non-Trekkies who don't know a tribble from a tricorder—may not care as much anymore about the ritual of keeping the faith with a pilgrimage to movie theaters. I can vouch for my own deep satisfaction at seeing an old favorite resurrected, and at discovering that it speaks so directly to our place and time. A movie built to celebrate diversity, understanding and hope is definitely audacious. It's enough to make anyone feel that right now, here on earth and out in the final frontier, we have liftoff.

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